Alumni Updates: Saudamini Kalra
WE’RE JUST WARMING UP
(A few key points of exploration pieced together from my journals of the year, so far, as a student of physical theatre at L’ecole Jacques Lecoq.)
Madame Mnouchkine* would yell out in frustration at us “It’s as if you never had a childhood!”, while we scuttled around like rats on stage, without text or characters to cling to, waiting for the gods of theatre to descend upon us. The shiny yellow curtain standing tall at stage up centre seemed to grow limp and pale as more and more of us tried to take flight from behind it and set off dazzling sparks. More often than not, we spluttered out like the first phut-phut-phut’s of water when it returns to a Mumbai apartment at the designated hour each morning, being then asked to please not return on stage until we were less uninspiring. This challenging three-week long workshop at Pondicherry in December of 2016 would soon give me the necessary push to apply to train at L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq’s renowned training program in Paris, a desire that had been brewing in me for quite some time.
“Don’t say the old lady screamed, bring her on and let her scream” – words by Mark Twain that I encountered many years ago which have come to be the pithiest artistic advice I may ever hear, and yet also the toughest to follow.** The old lady must burst through the yellow silk curtains and scream. It is not for the performer to tell us she is screaming, or show us how she screamed that one time, or dream of her screaming and break into sweats. She, the performer, must step aside, out of her own way, so that she is open like a door, a door through which the old lady will come striding in, stomping, breaking the china and making the old paintings on the wall tremble and through the throat of this opening the old lady will scream until her lungs turn blue. There is a need to concede to some ancient natural laws of what is and what is not dramatique. This is a key point in the study of theatre, especially physical theatre.
At the same time, I try not to spend any time anymore on thinking about what physical theatre is. Or whether there is such a separate genre at all. Isn’t it limiting to define it rather than re-discover it? (Any investigation into the earliest forms of theatre known to human civilization will lead one to the beginnings of physical movement too). To go further, how can one even surely speak of what theatre is, as a form? How does one define it? Or identify it? Theatre could be seen as a kind of public speaking, but you need not speak at all. It is a bit like dance or music, in that it is made up of a series of attitudes/shapes, and, like dance and music, there is no theatre if there is no rhythm. But unlike those two, theatre requires some logic; it gives rise to “why” questions (preferably without answers) – Why did the banker fear his own shadow? Why did the clown detest the king? Why did Nora leave her loving husband?
Perhaps, theatre is a bit more like magic? Or poetry? Which are again different names for the same beast – one which obscures the things we like to casually refer to as the “real”, to reveal a deeper, more abstract experience of being human in our world. In theatre, “reality” exists behind the curtain. Isn’t it fascinating what happens in the mind of an audience when a character goes off stage? Where do we see him go? What do we think he is doing back there? Do we imagine a man in make-up standing behind a curtain waiting for his next cue, or do we really see the world that is supposed to be back there? The downstairs bedroom, the snow-covered city, the war, and so on. What is the relationship between the man who has exited, and the drama that still remains in front of us? How are the two connected? How can the drama benefit from this connection? What happens, for instance, if a character goes off stage after having made certain “dramatic promises” to the audience, only to never return? How can the drama benefit from such a betrayal?
How many narratives can, thus, exist in the head of the audience at one time? What is the importance of placing focus? If I encountered five major characters in a narrative all at once, and each of them was drawing me towards themselves from within their own spaces, what about this does or doesn’t work? What is the relationship between drama and states of tension, between equilibrium and disequilibrium?
At the school, we begin our journey into drama by trying to let our bodies be carried to shore by imaginary waves, and finding our way through dense forests, inventing the terrain as we traversed it. Why this voyage? What is it to be in the wild - At the service of something bigger than my intellectual self? A force that brings us face to face with our shared predicament of constant movement through space and time. Here, the school’s stance as a learning place not just for theatre, but for students of life itself, becomes clearer. We come to understand this way of thinking and being, in a precise and often mechanical way. A pursuit of the art of motorcycle maintenance as opposed to the deep reflection on Zen.
While this constant search for The Grand Undeniable Truths of Art and Humanity might seem like an impossible endeavour, it is the body that can guide us in repeating what we have already lived through – maybe because the hunger for art itself lies in our longing to hear and see the same things repeated over and over, to constantly encounter ourselves from new points of view.
*Ariane Mnouchkine, founder and director of the group Theatre du Soleil.
** Twain’s reprehensible opinions about slavery in some of his earlier writings, on the other hand, make it impossible to admire the man in the same way as one may appreciate his artistic wisdom.